Getting Congress to Move: Get on the Blower and Hold that Line!

Illustration by Oliver Munday / Source: Gary Ombler / Getty (phone)

Little Rock   Ever wondered what your representatives in Congress really listen to other than lobbyists, local business people, and of course their donors? Well, Kathryn Schulz in an informative piece in The New Yorker waded into the Washington swamp and came back with some interesting answers to that question.

A lot of people might think its mail. In the Senate 6.4 million letters were delivered last year, so that’s something. A 2015 survey she cites says that senior staffers say personalized emails, personal letters, and hometown editorials rank highest. Nonetheless when it comes to disruptive action it’s the old school telephone that gets the job done. In Schulz’ words:

“For mass protests…calls are a better way of contacting lawmakers, not because they get taken more seriously but because they take up more time—thereby occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and attracting media attention.”

What doesn’t work according to her interviews are Facebook posts, random tweets, online petitions, comments through app, or mass e-mails from advocacy and websites. She also found that you are more likely to be successful on a small, specific item from your district as opposed partisan and polarized matters. This resonates with me as well. I can remember easily getting an amendment to the budget reconciliation bill years ago to retain hazardous duty pay for our workers at the National Hansen’s Disease Center, but having to work like the dickens to get ACORN’s Homesteading Bill passed, even in watered down form.

But in this moment the telephone seems to have become the citizen’s weapon de jour. Calls are flooding into Congressional offices in record volumes. Schulz notes one Democratic Senator from Washington got 31000 calls in 3 weeks, while a Republican Senator from Colorado got 3000 in one night. Senator Bob Casey from Pennsylvania got 1000 pieces of mail over two weeks in January of 2016, but got 45,000 in the same period this year. As Schulz reports:

“Members of Congress claim that, Senate-wide, the call volume for the week of January 30, 2017, more than doubled the previous record; on average, during that week, the Senate got 1.5 million calls a day. Three of those days January 31st, February 1st, and February 2nd – were the busiest in the history of the Capitol switchboard.”

They don’t like being on the hot seat either. They are frightened by the “spontaneity” and the fact that it seemed “organic: people saw something in the news, it made them angry, and they called their member of Congress.” Yes, Americans are acting like the President, but the average America is grabbing her telephone and letting her Congressperson have a piece of her mind, rather than the President fumbling for his Twitter account on his phone.

Of course this is not organizational and neither is it sustainable, but it speaks to an important moment and a potential movement, if it could be marshalled, though that won’t be easily done since the response, interestingly, seems to be on issues across the board from health to education to appointments to general misbehavior.

There is something so American in the naiveté all of this, but it offers hope for change as well. As Schulz closes, she writes:

“The telephone might not be a superior medium for participatory democracy, but it is an excellent metaphor for it, and it reminds us of the rights we are promised as citizens. When we get disconnected, we can try to get through. When we get no answer, we can keep trying. When we have to, for as long as we need to, we can hold the line.”

How dear is that? It won’t really work, as most of us know, but, very importantly, it’s something to build on.

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